Japanese in Hawaii

The Japanese in Hawaii simply Japanese or ‘ Local Japanese‘, rarely Kepanī are the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii. At their height in 1920, they constituted 43% of Hawaii’s population. They now number about 16.7% of the islands’ population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The final voyage of the Inawaka-maru

The first known arrival of Japanese to Hawaii came on May 5, 1806, involving survivors of the ill-fated ship Inawaka-maru who had been adrift aboard their disabled ship for more than seventy days.

The Inawaka-maru, a small cargo ship built in 1798 in Osaka, was owned by Mansuke Motoya. The Inawaka-maru started its final voyage from Hiroshima to Edo (modern Tokyo) on November 7, 1805. The ship had been chartered by the Kikkawa clan to deliver mats, horse feed, and two passengers, Kikkawa officials. Her crew consisted of Captain Niinaya Ginzo, Master Ichiko Sadagoro, Sailors Hirahara Zenmatsu, Akazaki Matsujiro, Yumori Kasoji, and Wasazo, a total of eight aboard. The Inawaka-maru had to turn back, restarted her journey on November 27. She arrived in Edo on December 21, started back to her home port stopping in Kanagawa, Uraga, and Shimoda, and left on her final leg – from Shimoda across the Enshunada Sea – on January 6, 1806. . The Inawaka-maru was caught by a snowstorm that turned to rain and winds battered the ship eastward into the Pacific Ocean. On January 7 the crew cut down the mast because of the strong winds. On January 11 two rocky islands were sighted but no attempt was made toward them. These would be the last land before the Hawaiian Islands. On January 20 the water stores were empty, but the men collected rain water to survive. On February 28 the rice provisions ran out. On March 15 a flying fish landed in the ship and the men fished to sustain themselves. On March 20 the Tabour, an American ship Captained by Cornelius Sole, rescued the men of the Inawaka-maru. He found them begging for food by gesturing to their stomachs, mouths and bowing, found the galley empty, and understood their ordeal. He had the possessions of the survivors brought aboard his ship and salvaged parts and items aboard Inawaka-maru. Captain Sole had the survivors fed, over a span of five days, small portions to a progression to three normal meals a day, the remedy for starvation. On May 5, 1806 the Tabour docked in Oahu, Hawaii. Captain Sole left the eight Japanese in the care of King Kamehameha I. Captain Sole also left the anchor of the Inawaka-maru, 40 axes, and other items as payment for the Kingdom’s hospitality.

The King delegated the responsibility for the Japanese to Kalanimoku who had 50 men construct a house on May 6 for the Japanese. It took four days to build and a cook and two guards assigned to the house, which attracted crowds to these men of a different ethnicity. On August 17 the Japanese left Hawaii aboard the Perseverance to Macau on October 17. From there they took a Chinese ship to Jakarta on December 25. In Jakarta they fell ill and five died there or on the voyage to Nagasaki where they arrived on June 17, 1807 where another died. At the time of the Sakoku it was illegal to leave Japan and the remaining two survivors were jailed and interrogated. One committed suicide and the remaining survivor Hirahara Zenmatsu eventually made it home November 29, 1807 but was summoned by Asano Narikata, The Daimyō of Hiroshima, to recount his odyssey of an experience titled Iban Hyoryu Kikokuroku Zenmatsu. Hirahara Zenmatsu died six months later.


Between 1869 and 1885 Japan barred emigration to Hawaii in fears that Japanese laborers would be degrading to the reputation of the Japanese race, as had occurred with the Chinese. In 1881 King David Kalākaua visited Japan to strengthen relations between the two nations. Kalākaua and Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito could identify with each other; both countries were island nations, both were nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies, and both were under pressure of Western powers. Kalākaua offered not to request extraterritoriality of Japan, an act that departed from the norm of western nations. On March 10 Kalakaua met Meiji to propose a marriage between Princess Victoria Kaiulani and Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, a few days later the proposal was denied, but the ban on immigration was eventually lifted in 1885. The first 153 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii on February 8, 1885 as contract laborers for the sugarcane and pineapple plantations.

Hawaii becomes American

The political environment made an unfavorable shift with the onset of a new era known as the Hawaiian Revolutions. In 1887 the settlers ended absolute rule by the king by forcing him to accept the Bayonet Constitution and agreeing to constitutional government with a powerful parliament. The new constitution gave voting rights only for Hawaiians, Americans, and Europeans, and thus denied rights for Japanese and other Asians. The Japanese commissioner worked to pressure the Kingdom to restore the rights of Japanese by amending the constitution. In 1893 the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown, Tokyo responded by appointing Captain Tōgō Heihachirō to command the Japanese naval activities in Hawaii. The HIJMS Naniwa was sent immediately to Hawaii to rendezvous with the HIJMS Kongō which had been on a training mission.

Captain Tōgō had previously been a guest of Kalākaua, and returned to Hawaii to denounce the overthrow of Queen Lydia Liliʻuokalani, sister and successor to the late king and conduct ‘ gunboat diplomacy‘. Tōgō refused to salute the Provisional Government by not flying the flag of the Republic. He refused to recognize the new regime, encouraged the British ship HMS Garnet to do the same and protested the overthrow. The Japanese commissioner eventually stopped Tōgō from continuing his protest, believing it would undo his work at restoring rights to Japanese. Katō Kanji wrote in hindsight that he had regretted they had not protested harder and should have recruited the British in the protest.

The continued presence of the Japanese Navy and Japan’s opposition to the overthrow led to a concern that Japan might use military force to restore Liliʻuokalani to her throne as a Japanese puppet. Anti-Japanese sentiment heightened.

After 1898 all children born in Hawaii were American citizens. Most of the Japanese children had dual citizenship after their parents registered them. The Japanese settlers set up the first Japanese schools in the United States. By 1920, 98% of all Japanese children in Hawaii attended Japanese schools. Statistics for 1934 showed 183 schools taught a total of 41,192 students. Today, Japanese schools in Hawaii operate as supplementary education (usually on Friday nights or Saturday mornings) which is on top of the compulsory education required by the state.

Today, where Nikkei are about one-fifth of the whole population, Japanese is a major language, spoken and studied by many of the state’s residents across ethnicities. It is taught in private Japanese-language schools as early as the second grade. As a courtesy to the large number of Japanese tourists (from Japan), Japanese subtexts are provided on place signs, public transportation, and civic facilities. The Hawaii media market has a few locally produced Japanese-language newspapers and magazines, however these are on the verge of dying out, due to a lack of interest on the part of the local (Hawaii-born) Japanese population. Stores that cater to the tourist industry often have Japanese-speaking personnel. To show their allegiance to the U.S., many Nisei and Sansei intentionally avoided learning Japanese.

The Hawaii Japanese School – Rainbow Gakuen (ハワイレインボー学園 Hawai Reinbō Gakuen), a supplementary weekend Japanese school, holds its classes in Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu and has its offices in another building in Honolulu.

  • Asato, Noriko (September 2005). Teaching Mikadoism: The Attack on Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii, California, and Washington, 1919-1927. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
  • Harada, Koichi Glenn (1934). A Survey of the Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
  • Kono, Hideto; Sinoto, Kazuko (2000). ‘Observations of the first Japanese to Land in Hawai’i’ (PDF). The Hawaiian Journal of History 34: 49-62.
  • Hosokawa, Bill. Nisei, the Quiet Americans (1969).
  • Kawakami, Barbara F. Japanese immigrant clothing in Hawaii, 1885-1941 (University of Hawaii Press, 1995).
  • Liu, John M. ‘Race, ethnicity and the sugar plantation system: Asian labor in Hawaii, 1850-1900.’ in Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich, eds. Labor immigration under capitalism: Asian workers in the United States before WWII (1984) pp: 186-201.
  • Miyakawa, Tetsuo Scott. East across the Pacific: historical & sociological studies of Japanese immigration & assimilation (ABC-CLIO, 1972).
  • Morgan, William. Pacific Gibraltar: U.S.-Japanese Rivalry over the Annexation of Hawai’i, 1885-1898 (Naval Institute Press, 2011).
  • Morimoto, Toyotomi (1997). Japanese Americans and Cultural Continuity: Maintaining Language through Heritage. United Kingdom: Routledge.
  • Nordyke, Eleanor C., and Y. Scott Matsumoto. ‘Japanese in Hawaii: a Historical and Demographic Perspective.’ (1977). online
  • Stephan, John J. (2002). Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan’s Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-2550-0.
  • Takagi, Mariko (1987). Moral Education in Pre-War Japanese Language Schools in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
  • Thernstrom, Stephan; Ann Orlov; Oscar Handlin (1980). ‘Japanese’. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (2 ed.). Harvard University Press. pp. 561-562. ISBN 0-674-37512-2.
  • ‘United States Census 2000’. United States Census Bureau. April 2000.

Japanese Culture in Hawaii

A NOTE FROM KATHIE: If you have any corrections or updates to the information on this page or if you would like us to add any information or links, please send a message to the email address on our Information about Japanese culture in Hawaii and the influence of Japanese culture on the Hawaiian culture of today. Includes Japanese attractions, events, and organizations in Hawaii, books about Japanese culture in Japan, Japanese restaurants in Hawaii, and recipes for Japanese dishes popular in Hawaii.

Japanese Attractions in Hawaii
Byodo-In Temple
The beautiful Byodo-In Japanese Temple in Hawaii is located on the windward side of Oahu at the base of a steep mountain range. It is a full scale replica of the Byodo-In Temple built in 998 in the city of Uji, Japan. Oahu’s Byodo-In Temple is located on the grounds of the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park in Kaneohe. It was built in 1968 to celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the Japanese culture in Hawaii.

Brothers in Valor Memorial
The Brothers in Valor Memorial in Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy Park recognizes the contributions of Japanese Americans who served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
Founded in May of 1987 as a result of discussions sparked by the 1985 ‘100 Years of Japanese in Hawaii’ celebration. The purpose of the center is to share the history, heritage, and culture of the Japanese American experience in Hawaii.

Japanese Events in Hawaii
Memorial Day Lantern Floating Ceremony (Oahu)
This annual festival on Magic Island in Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu features live Hawaiian and Japanese entertainment and a traditional Japanese lantern floating ceremony to honor ancestors and remember those who have passed away. As the sun is going down, more then 700 lanterns lit with candles are set afloat. For the first three years this event was held in Keehi lagoon but since 2002 it has been held at Magic Island.

Honolulu New Year’s Ohana Festival (Oahu)
The New Year’s Ohana Festival at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and Moiliili Field is the largest annual event organized by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. It typically lasts all day and it features live entertainment, cultural and martial arts demonstrations, crafts, books sales, and Japanese and multicultural food booths. The 2009 New Year’s Ohana Festival took place on Sunday, January 11, 2009 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Joy of Sake (Oahu Island)
This annual event at the Hawaii Convention Center sponsored by the International Sake Association and it features Sake sampling and exhibits. For more information call 808-739-1000.

Hilo Festival of the Pacific (Hawaii Island)
This annual event on the Big Island of Hawaii celebrates Japanese influences on Hawaiian culture and it features a lantern parade, a Japanese tea ceremony at the Liliuokalani Park Tea House, contests, arts and crafts, and food booths. For more information call 808-934-0177.

Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival (Hawaii Island)
This annual festival on the Big Island of Hawaii is a celebration of Japanese culture and it features a parade, bon dancing, Taiko drums, karaoke, art, crafts, and food booths. Call 808-961-8706 for more information

Other Japanese Culture Events in Hwaii

  • Cherry Blossom Festival
  • Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant
  • Girl’s Day: March 3
  • Boy’s Day and Children’s Day: May 5
  • Buddha Day: April 8
  • Bodhi Day: First Sunday in December

    Japanese Organizations in Hawaii
    Japan America Society of Hawaii
    An organization founded on September 28, 1976 to promote understanding and friendship between the people of Japan and the United States through the special and unique perspective of Hawaii

    Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce
    Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
    2454 South Beretania Street, Suite 201
    Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
    Phone: 808-949-5531

    Japanese Cultural Society of Maui
    In 1969 a group of Japanese American women on Maui formed the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui to perpetuate their heritage and educate the younger generation about traditional Japanese culture and values. Anyone interested in Japanese culture is welcome to join the society.

    Hawaii Association of Teachers of Japanese (HATJ)
    Membership is open to teachers, former teachers, prospective teachers, students, administrators and others interested in the teaching of Japanese language, literature, and linguistics at all educational levels in Hawaii.

    Judo Black Belt Association of Hawaii
    Founded in 1929 to support local Judo students in Hawaii by assisting in their travel to international tournaments and by bringing world class Judo instructors to Hawaii.

    Hawaii Bonsai Association
    Founded in 1972 to promote the art and culture of bonsai to the general public in Hawaii by providing bonsai knowledge, exhibits, demonstrations, and educational programs.

    Japan Exchange Teaching Alumni Association (JETAA) Hawaii
    Organizer of social activities, community service events, networking events, and cultural appreciation events, for JETAA members, alumni, family and friends.

    UH Japanese Culture Club
    This University of Hawaii student club organizes cultural workshops, community service opportunities, international exchange events, language exchanges and movie showings.

    UH Center for Japanese Studies
    Official Web site of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

    More About Japanese Culture in Hawaii
    Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
    Articles and information about Japanese immigration to Hawaii.

    Japanese Restaurants in Hawaii
    Where to find Japanese restaurants, sushi houses, and Japanese cafes and fast food outlets in Hawaii.

    Japanese in Hawaii: A Bibliography (PDF)
    These materials related to Japanese in Hawaii are available in the Hawaii and Pacific Section of the Hawaii State Library at 478 South King Street in the historic capitol district of Downtown Honolulu.

    Japanese Food Recipes
    Recipes for Teriyaki Meatballs. and for the breaded and fried chicken cutlet dish known as Chicken Katsu.


  • Japanese Pilot Crash landing on Niihjau in 1941
  • Jan Ken Po: The World of Hawaii’s Japanese Americans
  • Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii: 1865-1945
  • No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawaii During WWII
  • The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle
  • Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd


  • Japanese Cooking Hawaii Style
  • Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook: Fun Lunches for Kids

    See also:

  • Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
  • Other Ethnic Groups to Hawaii
  • Related Links
    About Hawaii
    Islands of Hawaii
    Hawaii for Visitors

    Elsewhere on the Web
    Japanese Culture in Hawaii
    Japan-America Society of Hawaii
    Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
    50th Anniversary of Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
    Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
    The Japanese in Hawaii
    University of Hawaii Center for Japanese Studies

    contacts page.

    Japanese Culture and Health Practices

    From Florida… To Japan Culture It’s everywhere Over 128 million people live in Japan Their percentage of the population age 65 and over is the highest in the WORLD! Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world You can imagine how this effects their health But what does all that have to do with A patients daily CULTURE and lifestyle effects their health care practices and as nurses it is important for us to understand how their culture may impact how we care for them. Respect is a very important aspect of how the japanese interact and the relationships they have, both professional and personal. There are several environmental and genetic factors that effect the over all health of the japanese that you, as a nurse need to be aware of. Rice is the staple item of the Japanese diet. There are several other japanese practices that effect health The japanese people do not like to maintain eye contact for very long They also view punctuality as a sign of respect. If you say you will be back by a certain time, be sure to stick to your word . Education is highly valued in Japan and it has an almost zero percent illiteracy rate. English is taught as part of their high school curriculum. When you meet them offer to shake their hand and speak to them formally by using their last name. They do not like to say ‘no’ or admit that they do not understand something as they consider both of those things to be shameful, they have a ‘save-face’ mentality. The japanese also do not like to express ‘negative’ emotions such as fear, anger, or pain. It is important to understand the family dynamics and the interpersonal relationships within the unit. In the end… we are all part of the same world, and we all go through… this cRaZy thing called life. The End From an early age the japanese are taught that the group is more important then the individual. This is especially evident in families. The mother is the dominant figure of the household. It is common for them to sleep with their youngest child until they are 10 years old. They do not let their babies cry and they maintain a very special relationship with their sons. Corporal punishment is common practice in Japan so it is important to outline U.S. child abuse laws. Teens and college students do not place much emphasis on dating. In Japan many people sleep on traditional straw mats called ‘tatami’ and they are filled with dust mites that cause asthma, one of Japans few endemic diseases. When administering various drugs be vigilant, dosages may have to be varied to due the japanese metabolism breaking them down faster. Drug reactions may be heightened or dulled depending on which ones are given. Some of the risk factors to look for in the japanese population is increased smoking and alcohol consumption due to traditional festivals and rituals. Japanese parents tend to reward their child’s academic achievements with sweets, try to encourage them to choose other methods for rewarding them. Remind parents of various environmental dangers and encourage them to have their children wear helmets and use seat belts. Let us tell you… Rice has a symbolic meaning in the Shinto religion similar to that of the ‘bread of life’ concept in Christianity. Traditional morning, noon, and evening meals are very different from the western diet. Daily intake of sweets is often high. Green tea is a popular beverage and is high in vitamin C. Encourage a diet rich in Iron and Calcium. Recently the ‘western’ diet has become more popular. Mental illness and handicaps are considered taboo and it is common to have an abortion if the health of the fetus is in question. During pregnancy the mother avoids loud noises as it is considered bad luck. Be sensitive when talking about end of life care, older adults are highly respected. The eldest son is responsible for care. Be sure to go over advanced directives, and organ donation information to ensure understanding. The japanese do not like to talk about death, emotion is shown by physical presence. Notify family of worsening conditions as they will likely wish to be at the bedside. The traditional religion of the japanese people is the Shinto faith. Buddhism is also widely practiced. Only about 1% of the population are catholic or protestant. Many people use a healer called a ‘Kampo’. Many japanese believe in balance; yin and yang. They believe in the balance of the elements of earth, wood, fire, water, and metal. Acupuncture is also commonly practiced. The japanese believe ‘Ki’ is their life force and energy and that acupuncture helps unobstruct it’s flow through the body leading to good health. Ask patient if he removes his shoes when he enters his home. The japanese hold physicians and nurses in high regard and follow instructions very well. They will not question you but make sure to allow ample time for dialogue. The japanese word for pain is ‘itami’ and it is considered shameful to show or express. They may refuse pain medication as to avoid addiction which is also considered shameful. The sclera is the best location to view changes in color.

    The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food Is Safe. The Rhetoric Is Dangerous.

    by Noritake Kanzaki

    Our new series on the fundamentals of Japanese food culture takes a look at the elements that have formed Japan’s unique cuisine – starting with rice. Japan’s rice not only defines its cuisine, but reflects a fascinating history and tradition.

    Staff of Life

    Rice is indispensable in the Japanese diet, but its history as a daily food is not so very long – just half a century ago, white rice was enjoyed only on special occasions, such as during shrine festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, or at weddings and funerals. Japan’s rice cultivation has flourished since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., and in subsequent eras, preparing new paddies and encouraging cultivation was a central concern in the policies of Japan’s rulers. Until recently, however, the country’s soil and climate limited the rice yields, making it impossible to produce enough rice to serve as the staple food for the entire population. Yet, since rice is native to the tropics, it is hardly surprising that rice harvests have never been as abundant in Japan as they are in tropical or subtropical climes, despite over 2,000 years of cultivation.

    In the Japanese archipelago, which lies at the northern limit of the zone in which rice can be cultivated, those least likely to eat rice were the farmers who raised it. There’s an old Japanese saying that goes, ‘Six parts for the state, four parts for the people,’ which reflects the duty of the 70% to 80% of those who were farmers to hand over more than half the rice they produced to non-food producers, mostly city-dwellers.

    While rice was raised in the country, it was collected, stored and consumed in the cities where power was concentrated. As a result, the majority of the rural population were forced to subsist on other grains and root vegetables grown in dry fields. Their daily diet was based on rice mixed with whatever was available.

    In a sense, Japan’s extensive dry fields were a blessing compared to other rice-growing regions in Southeast Asia. In today’s Japan, rice is augmented by bread and noodles, both of which have long traditions in Japanese dietary customs.

    The Mystical Power of Rice

    Rice has always been valued highly in Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1868), salaries and daily wages were calculated in rice. It has also long been customary for rice to be connected to gifts to temples and shrines. Beyond its earthly value, however, Japanese have a strong religious belief in rice and its mystical power. This is why rice is sometimes called chikara (a homonym for ‘strength’), written using Chinese characters that literally mean ‘divine grain.’

    Offerings presented to the gods may include glutinous rice cooked with red beans, rice wine and glutinous rice cakes (mochi). These three highly ranked offerings are all of rice, and take great effort to make. They are offered to the gods as Japan’s finest foods – and when Japanese speak of gods, they also include their ancestors.

    Belief in gods, Buddhas and ancestors are all deeply rooted in the Japanese concept of ancestral spirits, which live together with gods and Buddhas in Heaven where they watch over the lives of their descendants. At festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, of which Obon and the New Year are the most important, ancestral spirits descend along with the gods and Buddhas to visit the households to which they belong. On these occasions, the spirits and their descendants socialize with one another, and the spirits serve as intermediaries between humanity and the gods or Buddhas.

    An extension of these practices is the naorai, or meal of communion between gods, Buddhas and humans, where food that has been offered is shared after a festival. Similarly, in ceremonies at home, offerings first presented at the home Shinto and Buddhist altars are then eaten by the family – another form of communion. The offerings should naturally be what the ancestors most enjoyed eating.

    Glistening white rice, rice wine and rice cakes, which are also made from white rice, are the traditional offerings. Of these, rice wine is particularly revered, but rice cakes tend to dominate in the offerings taken home in thanksgiving for family members and fellow members of a religious association.

    Glutinous Rice

    Because glutinous rice cakes are considered the concentration of the spirit believed to reside in each grain of rice, they are regarded as being especially rich in the divine power of rice.

    A symbol of this belief is kagamimochi, round glutinous rice cakes prepared as New Year offerings. The gods are believed to descend into the kagamimochi, which then come to embody the gods themselves. The swollen, rounded form of kagamimochi has a special meaning: one account says that this shape is modeled on the heart, a way of expressing the renewal of the life force. Thus, kagamimochi are also known as chikara (‘strength’) mochi or hagatame (‘tooth-hardening’) mochi. In cities, tooth-hardening meals are eaten during New Year or the last day of the year, while the custom of eating dried kagamimochi on the first day of the sixth month is found throughout Japan – a way to renew the life force as summer approaches.

    These customs reflect the importance of glutinous rice in Japan. It seems probable that the first rice brought to Japan in ancient times was akagome, a red glutinous variety. Because this variety produces extremely small yields, it was replaced later by improved varieties. But while glutinousrice yields remain smaller than those of conventional types, the Japanese continue to grow it – an ongoing use of glutinous rice which distinguishes Japan from other parts of Asia.

    Steaming is the basic cooking method for glutinous rice, as it ensures that ample water penetrates the grain, an important factor since the rice grain is round and its core is hard. Also, the fibrous outer cover of the glutinous rice grain is weak. Thus, if it were boiled long enough for heat to penetrate and cook the core, the outer part of the grain would dissolve and turn to mush.

    Nowadays, steaming plays an important part in preparing ordinary rice eaten every day. The basic method is to boil rice with a minimum amount of water, then let it stand and settle. Before electric
    rice cookers, rice was cooked in large pots on wood-fired stoves. Traditional instructions were to first heat gently, then rapidly; then when all the liquid was absorbed, to extinguish the fire and never take the cover off – even if the children are crying! Because the last step was especially important, there was extra emphasis on not removing the cover – no matter what. Once the rice was boiled and the fire extinguished, the residual heat steamed the rice thoroughly, resulting in the sticky consistency loved by Japanese.

    An alternative method of preparing rice involves using a smaller pot with more water. After coming to a boil, the extra water is thrown out before the rice is done cooking. As a result, the stickiness is lost and the rice is drier. A similar method of boiling and draining rice is still used in India and Southeast Asia, and was formerly found in northeast Japan.

    Today, the preferred method in Japan is steaming, directly related to the type of rice grown here: short-grained japonica varieties rather than long-grained indica strains. In their attachment to a cooking method based on glutinous rice, and in many other ways, Japanese reveal their ongoing, close connection with rice; their reverence of rice as sacred is an ancient tradition in Japan, one that remains fundamental in their lives.

    Author’s Profile

    Noritake Kanzaki, born in 1944, is a specialist in Japanese folklore. Currently he is a member of the Japanese Folklore Academy, as well as a Councilor of the Institute for the Culture of Travel, co-researcher of the National Museum of Ethnology and a Shinto priest.

    This text was excerpted from Kikkoman News Letter ‘Food Forum’ Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1998) The text has been copyrighted by the author and may not be cited or quoted without written permission.
    Requests to reprint articles or excerpts should be sent to ‘ Contact Us‘.

    When Health Care Gets a Healthy Dose of Data

    THE Japanese spend half as much on health care as do Americans, but still they live longer. Many give credit to their cheap and universal health insurance system, called kaihoken, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its virtues are legion. Japanese people see doctors twice as often as Europeans and take more life-prolonging and life-enhancing drugs. Rather than being pushed roughly out of hospital beds, they stay three times as long as the rich-world average. Life expectancy has risen from 52 in 1945 to 83 today. The country boasts one of the lowest infant-mortality rates in the world. Yet Japanese health-care costs are a mere 8.5% of GDP.

    Even so, the country’s medical system is embattled. Although it needs a growing workforce to pay the bills, Japan is ageing and its population is shrinking. Since kaihoken was established in 1961, the proportion of people over 65 has quadrupled, to 23%; by 2050 it will be two-fifths of a population that will have fallen by 30m, to under 100m. ‘The Japanese health system that had worked in the past has begun to fail,’ Kenji Shibuya of the University of Tokyo and other experts write in a new issue of the Lancet, a British medical journal, devoted to kaihoken. ‘The system’s inefficiencies could be tolerated in a period of high growth, but not in today’s climate of economic stagnation.’

    By 2035 health care’s share of GDP will roughly double, according to McKinsey, a consultancy. The burden falls on the state, which foots two-thirds of the bills. Politicians are unwilling to raise taxes, so they squeeze suppliers instead: more than three-quarters of public hospitals operate at a loss.

    Like other service industries in Japan, there are cumbersome rules, too many small players and few incentives to improve. Doctors are too few-one-third less than the rich-world average, relative to the population-because of state quotas. Shortages of doctors are severe in rural areas and in certain specialities, such as surgery, paediatrics and obstetrics. The latter two shortages are blamed on the country’s low birth rate, but practitioners say that they really arise because income is partly determined by numbers of tests and drugs prescribed, and there are fewer of these for children and pregnant women. Doctors are worked to the bone for relatively low pay (around $125,000 a year at mid-career). One doctor in his 30s says he works more than 100 hours a week. ‘How can I find time to do research? Write an article? Check back on patients?’ he asks.

    On the positive side, patients can nearly always see a doctor within a day. But they must often wait hours for a three-minute consultation. Complicated cases get too little attention. The Japanese are only a quarter as likely as the Americans or French to suffer a heart attack, but twice as likely to die if they do.

    Some doctors see as many as 100 patients a day. Because their salaries are low, they tend to overprescribe tests and drugs. (Clinics often own their own pharmacies.) They also earn money, hotel-like, by keeping patients in bed. Simple surgery that in the West would involve no overnight stay, such as a hernia operation, entails a five-day hospital stay in Japan.

    Emergency care is often poor. In lesser cities it is not uncommon for ambulances to cruise the streets calling a succession of emergency rooms to find one that can cram in a patient. In a few cases people have died because of this. One reason for a shortage of emergency care is an abundance of small clinics instead of big hospitals. Doctors prefer them because they can work less and earn more.

    The system is slow to adopt cutting-edge (and therefore costly) treatments. New drugs are approved faster in Indonesia or Turkey, according to the OECD. Few data are collected on how patients respond to treatments. As the Lancet says, prices are heavily regulated but quality is not. This will make it hard for Japan to make medical tourism a pillar of future economic growth, as the government plans.

    The Japanese are justly proud of their health-care system. People get good basic care and are never bankrupted by medical bills. But kaihoken cannot take all the credit for the longevity of a people who eat less and stay trimmer than the citizens of any other rich country. And without deep cost-cutting and reform, the system will struggle to cope with the coming incredible shrinking of Japan.

    japanese culture anime

    Toshio Okada on the Otaku, Anime History, and Japanese Culture

    Luncheon Talk

    1 October 2003

    Article by Eri Izawa

    In the interest of writing a coherent article, I have taken the liberty of rearranging some of what Mr. Okada said into thematic sections, rather than keeping it strictly chronological. I have also taken the liberty of slightly expanding on some of what he said in ways that may not be quite verbatim to the original Japanese statements. Also, I have pluralized ‘otaku’ with an added ‘s’ – which may be confusing since oftentimes ‘otaku’ is properly written as its own plural. My apologies. As always, this document may contain errors, most of which are probably my own errors of note-taking, understanding, or judgment.
    | The Talk | The Q&A |Conversations Afterward |
    Otaku, Anime History, and Japanese Culture Mr. Toshio Okada (see the 29 Sept. 2003 writeup for a more thorough introduction) spoke today at MIT’s Ashdown House for an informative pizza luncheon talk. This section will cover his prepared lecture (which ‘went really well because I actually prepared beforehand this time!’).

    What Is an Otaku?

    MIT and Otaku

    What is an otaku? They are like MIT students. Mr. Okada took a walk at Harvard yesterday and noted, just by looking, a big difference between the young people there versus those at MIT. The MIT students emanate otakuness! (He even went so far as to call MIT an ‘otaku daigaku’ or otaku university.) He said he is quite good at detecting otaku, since sometimes in the city, just by observing a person from behind, he starts wondering if the person is an otaku – and then lo and behold, the person steps into an anime shop.

    Otaku: playful and intelligent

    So what characterizes an otaku? Mr. Okada suggested it is a combination of a high intelligence with childlike (perhaps playful?) interests. It is not enough to just be a fan of, say, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’; many otakus will also go to a high caliber school, and most importantly they will ask themselves: ‘
    Why do I like this (show)?’ It is in the seeking, questioning, and the desire to explain that otakus are distinguished.

    World-shaking Otakus

    Mr. Okada went on to name two particular big ‘otakus’ (though readers of the previous paper will recognize the first name as belonging to the ‘Dropout’ generation).

    First is Mr. Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning director of ‘Spirited Away.’ He is considered a god of otaku; his works appeal to not just otaku, but to a broad audience as well. Yet, for all his mass appeal, he still manages to put his own personality into his works, such as by clearly showing his love of air craft, as well as strong young girl heroines (though at least one critic accused Mr. Miyazaki of displaying a Lolita Complex).

    Second is Mr. Takashi Murakami, the ‘otaku who couldn’t become an otaku’ – a would-be giant robot animator who found he wasn’t cut out for animation and wound up becoming an artist. His artwork features very anime-like characters and images, such as young girls with large eyes and green hair and anime proportions wielding a sword.

    These otaku works are becoming known worldwide (e.g., the Oscar award for Mr. Miyazaki, and art exhibitions abroad for Mr. Murakami), which apparently is a great shock for most Japanese people. In Japan, ‘otaku’ is often seen as being negative, and otakus are seen as stupid; no one expected worldwide recognition for them.

    Mr. Okada himself had the unexpected opportunity to lecture at prestigious Tokyo University for three years – a bold offer on the part of the University, and an offer that has certainly never been repeated by any academic institution. The prevailing Japanese attitude is that foreignors such as Americans are only interested in ‘geishas, Mt. Fuji, and sushi’ … not otaku.

    Japanese Animation History

    A bit of animation history ….

    Early Animation in the US

    Animation had its roots in the United States, as a visual image culture. Windsor McKay’s ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ (1914) was a highly influential early animation, leading to a great rise in animation popularity.

    The ‘pinnacle’ of animation, Mr. Okada suggested, was Max Fleischer’s ‘Superman,’ an animation series shown in theaters. (Although the cartoons were frequently full of anti-Japanese propaganda, Mr. Okada said that Japanese otakus cared mostly about the animation quality. (Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi ‘Triumph of the Will’ also apparently had very good animation despite its status as propaganda.) Creators were looking for usable scenes and images, technical presentation and so on, and largely ignored the socio-political messages. ‘Whether it’s anti-Japanese, anti-American, or pro-North Korean, if the animation quality is good, it’s good!’)

    Miyazaki’s Reaction

    Mr. Hayao Miyazaki was so taken with the ‘Superman’ series that he copied the style extensively. The last episode of Mr. Miyazaki’s TV series ‘Lupin III’ apparently emulates the last episode of Fleischer’s ‘Superman’ scene for scene – though Mr. Okada thinks Mr. Miyazaki’s work is of a somewhat higher caliber. (
    Editor: My notes are a little unclear about this section.)

    (When confronted by this apparently piracy by one of his apprentices, Mr. Miyazaki apparently replied, ‘No, mine is better so it’s OK.’ And apparently this reply itself was ‘stolen’ from Victor Hugo’s(?? editor’s note: I have some confusion on this point) reply to his critics about ‘Les Miserables.’)

    Bringing Animation to Japan: Tezuka Osamu

    The Japanese saw the American cartoons and decided they wanted to see cartoons like it on TV regularly. However, this was considered a financial impossibility, because animation is actually more expensive than live action. Mr. Osamu Tezuka, the father of modern manga, actually solved this problem in his production of the famous ‘Tetsuwan Atom’ (‘Mighty Atom’ or ‘Astroboy’) – his solution was to pay poor people low wages to do the work. (His studio went bankrupt three times, however.)

    The Needs of TV Animation

    This innovation spurred TV companies to develop regular animated series, despite the expense of animation. Two things became necessary for this industry to survive:

    1. Japanese animation must be cheap, and
    2. The series need toy makers and other sponsers to help cover the costs.

    By the late 1960s, thanks to Tezuka’s work, monochrome animation became a big phenomenon – in time for the post World War II baby boomer generation.

    Post-War Japanese Culture

    A Loss of History

    The boomers also were receiving a very unusual form of education: They were being taught to reject Japanese history. Until the time of this generation, most Japanese were quite versed in Japanese history, able to give name after name of historic heroes from a thousand years in the past. In contrast, the post-World War II society rejected history. (Mr. Okada suggested an educated American will know more about Japanese history than many Japanese.)

    The post-World War II Japanese became something like an American; since the United States is a young country, without ancient history, the people tend to focus on children’s culture or current popular culture, unlike in the rest of the world. (Mr. Okada gave the example that even old people in the U.S. are still fond of Disney characters, which he suggested is not true in Europe.) Similarly, the post-war Japanese, no longer rooted in the past, took to popular culture instead.

    The Now Culture

    The result is that, with the post-war generations:

    1. They believe ‘there is only now. Whatever is now is what I like most.’ (Hence resulting in the notorious sudden fads and trends that quickly die away.)
    2. The most popular word is ‘now’ … the phrase ‘Oh, it’s now‘ means ‘Oh, it’s cool.’

    The Taint of Adulthood

    Finally, there was a stigma associated with being an adult; adults were, at some level, ‘denied.’ Not only is a child’s growth to adulthood seen as acquiring responsibilities, but it is also seen as the person becoming
    more polluted or dirty.

    Hence (Mr. Okada argues), Hollywood coming-of-age movies show characters growing up and becoming mature, but Japanese culture prefers to show characters going back to the innocence of being a child.

    Effects in Anime

    The Japanese society post-war, then, inherited the combined heavy weight of love of
    now with a deep distrust of adults.

    The 1960s-1970s saw this attitude in the TV anime creative staff. The products therefore placed a sort of faith or belief in children, and likewise showed the issues and problems of adulthood.

    This resulted in the strange phenomenon that children’s anime and manga became full of adult themes such as racism, rape, and poverty – and the adults did not mind the 10 year old kids seeing these issues. (When I asked Mr. Okada later for examples of these shows, he said they were too numerous to count. My impression is that shojo (girls’) manga dealt frequently with issues of rape, and I know an example of a manga that touches upon racism is the classic Cyborg 009 manga.)

    Don’t Forget Merchandizing….

    However, remember that anime also had to sell merchandise to be profitable.

    So now these heavy societal issues of racism, rape, and so on, are combined with giant robots and superheroes.

    The Interesting Mixture: Results

    Many children who were not very intellectually inclined did not understand the deeper messages, and went on as adults to watch standard adult action TV shows. But many of the intelligent children were so imprinted with the impact of the anime shows (‘traumatized’) that they went on watching anime into adulthood. And, just like MIT students, they retained their childlike interests.

    Questions and Answers

    Fans and Creators

    What’s the difference between an fan and a creator? Mr. Okada suggested the difference is a very small one: it’s the gap between ‘Yes, I’m 100% satisfied with watching this’ versus the thinking, ‘Yes, this is nice but I could do it better.’ In some cases, even thinking, ‘I want to create something like this’ will lead a fan to the path of creation.

    Unfortunately (Mr. Okada said), teachers in Japan teach creativity the wrong way. They tell their students to create something original. Mr. Okada suggested the best way is for a student to copy something over and over til his own’ style coems out. Otakus start by copying manga or anime exactly, then start writing their own dialogue, and then go on from there.

    Computers and Anime?

    Currently, computers are not much a help for anime creators. For Mr. Okada personally, the stress of dealing with computer crashes and the limitations of text conversations negate many of the benefits of using computers. In the animation industry, the computer has eliminated certain assembly-line work but has made the same work tedious. Even worse, a system may be developed to aid animation, but it goes obsolete in a few years and must be replaced. Mr. Katsuhiro Otomo is apparently working on a work called ‘Steam Boy,’ but since his animation system is being rebuilt every two years, he has already spent ten years on the project.

    Women Otaku

    What about women otaku? Mr. Okada said that, of the 600,000 people who attend the Japanese Comic Market, 60% are actually female. If one just watches TV, one sees mostly males because the women are far more likely to run away from cameras. In fact, Mr. Okada went on to explain, women are very good at hiding otakuness. Males may wear embarrassing otaku T-shirts on the trains on the way to Comic Market, but the females wear staid business suits and pumps, and only once at the destination will they change in the bathrooms into their embarrassingly otaku cosplay clothes. (The applicable Japanese word is ‘gitai,’ implying camouflage or mimicry.) While men do not hide their otaku-ness from their wives, otaku wives apparently are very good at hiding their otaku-ness from their husbands, keeping their doujinshi and erotic doujinshi purchases in a hidden cache.

    Computer Games and Anime and Manga

    Computer games have had an influence on some manga techniques, such as depicting characters overwhelmed with windows and locking up or freezing up (‘Oh, she’s frozen’). As far as anime goes, there was a time when game companies requested a lot of anime for videos within the game; however, this is less common now. Perhaps the biggest influence on anime from the game industry (in Mr. Okada’s view) is the idea of having multiple possible endings (‘another scenario’). Hence, it now happens that a TV show may have a happy ending, but the video of the same story may have a tragic ending.

    The US Market’s Influence on Anime; Cultural Misconceptions

    Has the US market influenced Japanese anime production? Not very much, not yet. Japan has only just figured out that many Americans like anime. Japan still makes a number of visible blunders in dealing with depictions of the West. An example is that the Japanese tend not to differentiate between Protestants and Catholics in anime – they are all just ‘Christian.’ So supposedly Western graveyards will all be filled with upright crosses instead of any other style of headstone, and every authority figure in a church must be a priest. When feedback started arriving about these issues, the Japanese reaction was a startled, ‘Oh really?’

    A person in the audience noted that he actually enjoys seeing the Japanese view of Western culture, seeing his own culture transformed in the eyes of a different culture. Mr. Okada noted that American films also portray Japanese culture in mistaken ways that amuse the Japanese. For example, the film ‘Rising Sun’ had Japanese scenes that were accompanied by strangely Chinese music. ‘Even now, Americans can’t figure out the difference between Japanese and Chinese!’ was the apparent reaction; and Mr. Okada noted the Japanese and Chinese are as different as hydrogen and helium (which anyone familiar with science will know are two extremely different atoms with hugely different properties!).

    Mr. Anno (‘Evangelion’) apparently never read the Bible, despite the heavy Christian symbology of his work; he just (according to Mr. Okada) picked out a few interesting technical terms. Likewise, the anime creation staff might open a book on psychology and, rather than read it thoroughly, simply go through it picking out ‘great technical terms’ to use in the anime!

    What if American Amateurs Made Anime?; Copyright Violations

    If American amateurs were to make anime with computers, the online equivalent of doujinshi manga, what would the Japanese community reaction be? Mr. Okada thought ‘They would probably be happy.’ However, one big difference is that Japanese creators don’t worry about copyrights (unlike in the U.S.). Most mangaka remember copying their favorite authors when they were starting out, so they don’t feel they can complain. Only high level publishing or anime studio executives tend to complain about copyright violations. In fact, Mr. Kenichi Sonoda, who writes the ‘Bubblegum Crisis’ manga, apparently likes receiving doujinshi of his work, including erotic doujinshi depicting his characters in sexual situations. ‘How lucky I am to be able to read this without having to write it myself!’ is his apparent attitude.

    Japanese Society Structure

    One very interesting question concerned American misconceptions of Japanese society – which Mr. Okada replied to by referring to corporate and societal hierarchy differences. The Japanese are, he said, not good at concentrating the power in one individual, unlike in America, where one decision maker tends to hold the power. In the US, when the President changes, the entire country is deeply affected; likewise, a change of a CEO will often change a whole company. However, in Japan, even if the top person changes, the rest of the organization tends to stay the same. The stereotypical ‘bottom up’ applies in as much as the lowest person does have an effect on the decisions. Famous directors like Mr. Tomino (‘Gundam’) and Mr. Oshii (‘Ghost in the Shell’) may be at the top, but they gather good people – and when asked at an American convention questions like ‘What’s the theme of your work?’ or ‘Why did you do such-and-such?’ they are quite likely to reply, ‘Ask my staff.’

    What’s the Anime Industry Otaku Overlap?

    Anime industry people are, Mr. Okada said, 100% otaku.

    How Have Computers Affected Japanese Otakus?

    How have otaku in Japan changed in the past 20 years due to the influence of computers? Mr. Okada said that, in the past 10 years, otakus have seen less and less of a need to hide their otakuness. But more than this, the internet helps them connect with other otakus and make friends.
    However, a drawback is that they no longer sit under tremendous pressure – the dual pressure of loving anime and of yet having no outlet. The dual pressure often led to the person going out and doing something, but now, the fact they have outlets means they don’t have the pressure pushing them to action any more.

    Why Is Japanese Doujinshi Better?

    Why is Japanese doujinshi seemingly of a higher quality level than American material? First of all, American society as a whole does not encourage emulation and copying; it is not very good at it. Mr. Okada said he believes creativity is built upon emulation. Japan is very good at emulation and copying, and children in Japan who like manga start copying manga at an early age, perhaps as young as six or seven. Moreover, the dedicated children are always, always drawing – they would be drawing or doodling through Mr. Okada’s lecture.

    Post-Luncheon Private Chats

    Advice to the Aspiring; Further Questions

    Later on, after the talk, I and a few others had the opportunity to hang out with Mr. Okada for a while. Among other topics, he briefly discussed:

    Fanzine Cautions

    Note: My understanding of this particular conversation is fairly poor, and my notes are inadequate.) It is not healthy for Japanese Animation magazine editors to become ‘stars’ – such as being invited to conventions and talking about whom they met. Just critiquing anime is not enough. Also, a website is not enough; a magazine must be printed and actually sold for it to establish its worth and to boost the egos of the staff. In Japan, the Comic Market has 600,000 people, but the important thing is they represent 25,000 comic fan clubs, which each makes four kinds of magazines. This makes for 100,000 kinds of magazines, full of doujinshi, articles, and reader reactions. The Japanese like to print their manga, and they need to sell their manga.

    Yes, There Are Only Otaku in America

    Mr. Okada apparently said yesterday that in America, there are no mere ‘fans’ or ‘consumers’ of anime – there are only otaku. When I challenged him on this statement, he pointed out that here it takes effort to keep up with anime as an adult American. Hence, the effort marks adult anime fans as ‘otaku.’

    Yes, Anime Has Had a Huge Impact on the US

    I also mentioned that many, many Americans seem to be studying Japanese in large part as a result of becoming anime fans (my own email inbox testifies to this trend). Mr. Okada said he doesn’t think Japan has any idea how much impact anime has had on the rest of the world.

    Advice to Hopeful Animators

    He also talked a bit about what it might take for a person to make their own animation. He said that when a person thinks of reasons he can’t do something, he must get rid of those reasons. Make a list of what is necessary. Don’t look at the final goal in all its monstrous difficulty – instead, break down the tasks into manageable pieces, and take things on in 30 minute or 1 hour pieces.

    The project must be your project. You must truly desire to make it happen, and always keep working on it. As long as you keep completing the small pieces, someday the final product will be done!

    And as the person with responsibility, you must be committed enough to write the script yourself, or find someone who can do it for you. Don’t stop with a no – keep working until you find who and what you need.

    When bringing in new people, never lord it over them; however, in your own mind you must keep the final responsibility yourself, the commitment to carry through even if everyone else leaves.

    Ideally, a project will have three people. ‘Daicon III’ had three core members: Mr. Yamano Akai, Mr. Anno, and Mr. Okada. Each was determined to carry on even if one of the others left – and supposing one of them fell over dead, Mr. Okada himself would have felt the responsibility of finding a replacement. (That responsibility is the role of the producer – and should the producer leave, a replacement should be found!) However, three people may be a luxury – most projects around the world have only one or two core committed people.

    The idea of committing to a questionable project (in a form of ‘Banzai attack’) is perhaps (Mr. Okada said) not a very smart one that would appeal to MIT people. After all, it might be folly to commit to something without knowing if you can actually succeed. But it is what is necessary. (And I argued that MIT people often do these kinds of projects with such things as MIT pranks.)

    Also, if you are doing a project, Mr. Okada said, you should aim high. Rather than be content to do something less than professional, one should aim to at the very least match, or preferably surpass, the professionals. And choose the battleground so that it is winnable: even if you can’t make a full-length professional anime, you could make even a 30 second anime so good it makes the professionals cry.

    Don’t worry about a message or story – concentrate on how you feel. ‘The story is not as important – just what you want to say and what you want to show’ – these are important.

    Why Does Japanese Anime Still Look Like Anime?

    Why is Japanese anime still sticking with the traditional large eyes, small noses, small mouths, and strangely colored big hair? Because it is an established art style (much like every artistic era’s notions of beautiful art styles) that the fans love. Mr. Oshii is among those who don’t like it – he also doesn’t like cute female characters that encourage a growing sense of attraction and connection – however, since he can’t find or develop a new style, he chooses to make anime that looks realistic instead.

    What Is Mr. Okada Doing These Days?

    What is Mr. Okada working on these days? He heads
    Otaking Productions and he is working on a miniature model product line that is highly popular in Japan. The models are of various historic space crafts, along with fascinating relevant information, sold in ‘black boxes’ that make the purchase a gamble (since one doesn’t know what one is buying). For more about these models, see Startales.com.

    Mr. Okada’s 29 Sept. 2003 Talk

    Back to Main Anime Pages

    21 Things You Should Know About Japanese Food | Ever In Transit

    Food is very serious business in Japan.

    Though I spend a lot of time thinking about the things I eat, I was still blown away by how much thought goes into the preparation, consumption, and appreciation of Japanese food. There is a level of obsession with food in Japan that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

    If you love to eat and enjoy exploring food, culture, and culinary traditions, Japan should be at the top of your world travel bucket list.

    Here are some things you should know about Japanese food:

    1. Japanese cuisine is one of only three national food traditions recognized by the UN for its cultural significance

    Last December, UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural organization, added traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, into its Intangible Cultural Heritage list meaning that the preservation of this way of eating is vital to the survival of the traditional culture. It was only the second national traditional cuisine honored as such, after French food. (Mexican cuisine has recently joined the list.)

    2. Japanese food is prepared carefully using seasonal ingredients and flavors

    Japanese food is as much about the preparation and presentation as it is the food itself. A great deal of thought goes into every item served. While we think of only four annual seasons, Japanese chefs consider dozens of seasons and carefully select ingredients that are in their prime with flavors that represent that specific period. Because we visited in the very early spring (beginning of March) every meal that we tried included bitter components which is a typical flavor for this season. Tasting these flavors, connects Japanese eaters with years past.

    Once finished, the food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

    3. Simplicity is key

    Courses include a few small items, often fresh and with simple flavors. Japanese chefs work with top quality ingredients and do as little to the food as possible to bring out the color and flavor.

    4. Infrequent use of garlic, chile peppers, and oil

    Many foods are seared, boiled or eaten raw and minimally seasoned. Umami (a rich flavor profile characteristic of Japanese food) is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, bonito flakes, and bonito broth. When foods are fried (like tempura) the batter is thin and absorbs very little oil.

    5. Condiments add diversity

    To add contrast to the food, simple condiments are often added to enhance the flavors. Light dipping sauces, citrus, miso, wasabi, pickles, and soy sauce may be included with the course.

    6. It doesn’t look like a lot of food but it is!

    Though the individual servings are small, traditional Japanese meals (called kaiseki) include several courses which add up to a lot of food. You will fill up.

    7. The choice of dishes is important

    While Western cultures tend to appreciate matching dishware, Japanese cooks tend to use dishes with a variety of colorful patterns, shapes and colors. The specific choice of dishes is important and seasonal. Fine restaurants will often use antique ceramics and lacquerware. When your server brings you a course, after asking what the food is, it is expected that you will also ask them to tell you about the dishes. The hand-painted bowl below (from a restaurant in Kyoto) was over 200 years old! It was selected because the leafy pattern represents the early spring season during which we visited, and it also provides a contrast between the old and the new green shoots of spring.

    8. Tokyo has some of the best restaurants in the world

    With 14 Michelin three-star restaurants, Tokyo has more top-rated restaurants than any other city, surpassing even Paris.

    9. Traditional restaurants don’t have low-wage ‘wait staff’

    Apprentice chefs sometimes work in restaurants for ten years before they are allowed to handle the fish or meat. During that time they bus tables, serve meals, and do manual tasks like making rice. Still, these apprentices earn decent wages and it is considered an insult to tip them.

    Hamming it up with the chef at Kyoto’s Kiyojirou restaurant.

    10. The seafood industry is HUGE!

    As seafood is a major part of the Japanese diet, the seafood fishing and import industry in Japan is staggering. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo is the world’s largest wholesale markets for fresh, frozen, and processed seafood and sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In this photo below, this massive market complex takes up all of the low-rise buildings in the foreground (lower 2/3 of the photo). And this is just one of 12 wholesale fish markets in Tokyo alone!

    11. Japanese meals include a lot of vegetables but finding completely vegetarian food is hard

    Japanese cuisine has a much higher ratio of plant-based foods than is typical in the U.S., but it is still hard to eat completely vegetarian. This is because many traditional dishes are cooked in fish broth or are sprinkled with bonito flakes. I’m vegetarian, and though we did our best to find plant-based alternatives within the traditional menus, there were a few times when I ate things that were not strictly vegetarian because they were cooked in fish broth, or which I had to scrape off the bonito flakes. That was fine with me, I was willing to do that in order to experience traditional food culture. Travelers that avoid seafood for religious reasons or because of allergies will find it a bit harder to stick to their diet. For more tips, check out this post: A Guide To Vegetarian Food In Japan

    12. Japanese people love beautifully crafted and gift-wrapped sweets

    Every region of Japan has different styles of typical traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in beautifully wrapped boxes, in convenience stores and in train stations because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. One of my favorite sweets was Kyoto’s yatsuhashi (shown below), thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste.

    Just whatever you do, don’t eat the sweets on the sidewalk or while standing or walking anywhere in public. Eating anything, anywhere outside of restaurants and food-serving establishments is considered rude! And that brings me to…

    13. Japan’s many food rules and food etiquette

    There are lots of rules for proper etiquette that apply to every aspect of life in Japan, including food. Some of these I had heard before we arrived, like it is polite to make a slurping sound when eating noodle soups, though, you should not slurp if you are eating soup made with rice. Sticking your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice is very rude, as is (to a lesser extent) laying your chopsticks across the bowl you are eating from. Always use the chopstick stand (if provided), and if not, fold the paper chopstick wrapper into a tent shape and rest the tips of the chopsticks on that. More rules on Japanese etiquette will be covered in a future post.

    14. It’s rude to leave a messy plate

    Another etiquette rule that surprised me is that you’re not supposed to leave your plates covered with a pile of crumpled up napkins and garbage. Our guide told us that shows a lack of respect for the restaurant staff and the meal they served. She suggested we fold (or even tie a bow!) in our used napkins.

    15. An interesting way to pour sake

    Restaurants will often pour sake until it spills over into a saucer, as a token of appreciation for your visit. The overflowing glass signifies abundance and gratitude. Don’t be surprised when they do this:

    16. Tea as art

    The traditional tea practice ( chado) is considered one of the Japan’s highest forms of art, alongside calligraphy, music, and theater. Aspiring practitioners study for years to earn the honor of serving a traditional tea. It’s expected that corporate CEOs (as leaders in their community) study and learn traditional forms of Japanese art, including the way of tea.

    17. Different regions feature locally grown ingredients in their confectons

    In Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture (a region known for soybean production) edemame is used in all the local wagashi sweets, like Northern Japan’s zundamochi (shown below) and edemame ice cream. Corporate copycat, Nestlé, even sells edemame flavored Kit Kat bars!

    18. Luxury fruit and high-end food imports from around the world

    Japan’s specialty farmers grow high-quality fruit especially melons and strawberries. There are certain prized varieties of cantaloupe, grown under carefully controlled conditions that sell for $200 each! (Believe me: I saw one in a department store!) And if there is anything else from around the world that you enjoy eating, you can probably find it in Tokyo. For example, Pierre Herme, my favorite Parisian macaron maker maker has, not one, but ELEVEN patisseries in Tokyo (number in the U.S. – zero).

    19. Dining on a Budget

    Dining out in Japan is expensive (especially in Tokyo) but there are delicious and hearty options for travelers on a budget. For example, you can almost always find a hearty bowl of ramen at local ramen shops for under $10. Because tiny restaurants like this specialize on a single dish, the quality is excellent and they can sell it to you for cheap.

    20. Picky eaters beware!

    Some Japanese food experiences (including visits to seafood markets) are NOT for the faint of heart! Local food markets feature all manner of slimy and wiggly sea creatures (some sold and even eaten alive!), giant tuna eyeballs (that we found at the Shiogama Fish Market), and have floors puddled with blood. The local tradition is to eat every part of the sea creature and the daily catch, so remind yourself how sustainable that is if you find yourself getting grossed out.

    21. Japan has impeccable food safety and cleanliness standards so it is safe to buy food anywhere

    Get the urge to buy sushi from a 7-11 convenience store or from a magazine vendor in the subway station? Do it. You won’t get sick.

    Interested in learning more about Japanese food culture? Please check out this new book, ‘ Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture.’ It was written by the editor of Roads and Kingdoms (travel, food, and culture website) with the support of Anthony Bourdain. It’s a great read.

    Want to save this post? Click below to pin it on Pinterest: This trip to Japan was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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